Thurston County's unofficial slogan may become "oops we did it again"


Support We the Governed – MAKE A DONATION HERE

We’ve written a number of articles about the deficiencies and problems with Thurston County’s recent ordinance which is pushing a massive tax increase to fund a $250 million – $300 million new courthouse scheme.  In addition to the many problems we’ve already documented and discussed, it now appears we might have to add fraud and legality of the underlying ordinance to the mix of concerns we have with this proposal.  The vast array of incompetence, waste, and dishonesty displayed by Thurston County staff and other special interests pushing this proposal on the voters of Thurston County is impressive and it only gets worse the more anyone dares to take a closer look.

Not an unusual situation in Thurston County

In summary, this ordinance was never legally signed or approved by the Thurston County Commissioners.  They probably thought it was legal, but they’ve made the mistake of relying on staff to provide them honest, accurate, and legally correct information.  This trust in senior Thurston County staff was a big mistake.  Bumbling incompetence has become the default norm in Thurston County for many years now, and this unfolding scandal surrounding the Thurston County Courthouse tax is just the latest chapter in a long, sad saga of poor choices. This also makes the job of being a Thurston County Commissioner tougher than most people realize.

Jon Pettit – Photo from 2016 Thurston Voter’s Guide

A large number of citizens in Thurston County oppose the massive tax proposal and have been in opposition to the poorly planned scheme from the beginning.   However, much of the credit for exposing just how egregiously incompetent Thurston County staff have been in this process should go to rural county resident Jon Pettit.  Jon Pettit’s father was a former Thurston County Commissioner in the late 70s, so it is safe to assume he grew up around local county politics and policies from a young age.  However, his recent, tireless effort to uncover the absurd incompetence behind this recent fiasco deserves real thanks from the taxpayers of Thurston County. 

How did Thurston County screw up this time?

Nancy Neraas (Foster Pepper)

First, it appears that the very ordinance itself was improperly signed and approved and fraud may have occurred in the process of pushing this controversial ordinance through the county system.  This fraud may include willful decisions made by the Thurston County Manager and possibly the Thurston County Prosecutor’s office.  The original ordinance proposed to the public for the public hearing is linked here.  The final ordinance that was signed by the two Commissioners who supported it – Democrat Tye Menser (the high tax guy), and Independent John Hutchings is linked here.  Looking at the signature page, it was also signed “agreed to form” by a person named Nancy Neraas who had odd title of “Special Deputy Prosecuting Attorney”.  This was signed by Nancy on April 30, 2019.  Unfortunately, Nancy didn’t hold that title at that time. 

Commissioner Tye Menser was an attorney and while he supports higher taxes, he also should know that staff is breaking the law

Nancy didn’t work for Thurston County, and in fact was under contract as outside bond counsel who would profit (just under $100,000) from successful passage of this property tax (see contract here).  Over a week later, the Thurston County Prosecutor, Jon Tunheim eventually got around to appointing this person to this position (which he can do under RCW 36.27.040), however, it was a week after the ordinance was illegally and falsely signed by Nancy Nerass falsely claiming a title she didn’t have (see agreement here) and nobody knows when Tunheim actually signed this document because his signature remains undated.  Of course, Thurston County just says it doesn’t matter (see their September 4, 2019 letter to Jon Pettit linked here).

Ok, I’m sure Thurston County screws up legal documents all the time.  Why does it matter?  Doesn’t the intention mean the same thing?  Well, let’s consider this argument for a second. 

I’d be willing to admit that botching legal documents is unfortunately common practice by Thurston County staff, however, this is the largest tax increase proposal in the history of Thurston County.  This document represents a 500% increase in the debt for generations in Thurston County.  It is hard to dispute the claim that this might be the most consequential ordinance passed by any county commission in Thurston County for at least the past 50 years.  Yet, this is the one they screw up?

Of course, it isn’t just the phony, illegal signature of the person falsely representing they worked for the county at the time.  The ordinance itself was modified and changed by Thurston County staff, apparently without notifying the Thurston County Commissioners after the original public hearing on April 23, 2019. You can see the differences for yourself here – (link to proposed ordinance – page 3) and (link to signed ordinance).  Notice that the original tax increase which was defined in the proposed ordinance was made blank in the final signed ordinance?  Supposedly, this will be a “fill-in-the-blank” tax (trust us, you have to pass it first before you know just how big it will be). Some changes could be claimed as “scrivener’s errors” but others are far more significant, and yet the county commissioners apparently were never informed about the significance of these changes. For example, if someone actually read RCW 84.55.050 (see highlighted copy of law here), they would see that the county staff doesn’t get to create a “fill in the blank” tax ordinance which the commissioners just signed. This problem alone makes this ordinance legally questionable.

Ramiro Chavez, Thurston County Manager

This isn’t the worst of it, however.  Thurston County residents have become almost immune to botched ideas, stupid plans (Remember the $42,000 pocket gopher tax – linked here), and in the recent past Thurston County has lost a $16 million civil lawsuit when Commissioners Romero, Wolfe and Valenzuela decided to make up their own non-existent laws (while colluding with the “Friends of Rocky Prairie” gang) in the Maytown Sand and Gravel fiasco.   This time, Thurston County staff completely failed to give proper notice for the regular county meeting held at the Rochester Middle School (see video linked here).  Under the Open Public Meetings Act (RCW 42.30) , when elected officials fail to give proper notice (they were supposed to give 30days notice – they gave two weeks notice instead), the meeting is considered illegal and all the ordinances approved during that meeting are not legally binding – which includes the ordinance to approve the mega Thurston County Courthouse Property Tax. 

To be fair to the Thurston County Commissioners, they probably thought this meeting was legal and properly noticed, but their mistake of trusting senior Thurston County staff is creating these problems.  While ensuring proper notice for all public meetings is part of the job description for senior staff at Thurston County (what do we pay these guys for?), they certainly didn’t do their job this time.  This is such an easy screw up to avoid, it is actually one of the laws sometimes followed by Thurston County staff.  Not this time, however.  Recently, based on Mr. Pettit’s continuous reminders to the Thurston County Commissioners to follow the law (see Pettit letter dated September 15, 2019 linked here) , the Thurston County Commissioners had an Executive Session and they appear to have agreed now to go back and possibly address the many problems and legal deficiencies with this ordinance.

Thurston County Manager reflexively lies to cover up mistake

It isn’t necessary for us to take this exit, yet bureaucracy seems reflexively determined to do so

Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez clearly has his hands full.  I viewed his appointment as an improvement after the previous County Manager Cliff Moore bailed and went to haunt the City of Yakima in 2016 (see article here).   However, it is beyond disturbing to see Mr. Chavez blatantly  lie and claim the April Commissioner meeting was a “Special Meeting” (which has different notice requirements in state law – See RCW 42.30.080).  He knows this is a lie, and everyone else knows this as well.

You might be special, but there was nothing “special” about the Thurston County meeting On April 30, 2019

The original notice for that meeting (which was illegally late) did not call it a “special meeting” (although now, staff is getting into the habit of calling every meeting “special” which isn’t legal either, but merely an effort to hide their failure to follow the Open Public Meetings Act).  The commissioner calendar at the time never called it a “special meeting.”  The Agenda handed out at the meeting did not call it a “special meeting” (see here). Mr. Chavez himself never called it a special meeting at the meeting itself or in the previous meetings referencing that meeting.  The meeting minutes from the meeting don’t call it a “special meeting.”  In fact, you can watch the video of the meeting (linked here) and see that nobody called it a “special meeting.”  This last ditch effort to save face and lie about the meeting was a clumsy and unnecessary effort to cover up the original screw up. The cover up is always worse than the original crime.  Unfortunately this also reflects poorly on both County Manager Chavez and those who defend this botched and incompetent fiasco. 

A good policy recommendation for Thurston County staff

There is no reason to reflexively lie to cover up a mistake or basic incompetence. Just admit it and fix the problem. However, that is not how bureaucrats think.  

Where does Thurston County go from here?

As we’ve discussed in previous stories on this new Thurston County courthouse tax proposal,  there are many reasons to oppose this new courthouse scheme.  For example, a short list is as follows:

  • Poor choice of location in downtown Olympia (see here). 
  • Too expensive (see here)
  • Unable to afford the debt or the taxes (see here)
  • Inability of the City of Olympia to pay its fair share (see here)
  • Historical failure of Thurston County to manage building projects of this size
  • Poor history of maintaining existing courthouse – no plan to change this deficiency
  • There are less expensive options which have been proposed (see here).
Thurston County is always tossing tax grenades at residents

These reasons are enough for the voters of Thurston County to reject this proposed tax increase next April, however, these additional legal problems with the ordinance itself provide further proof and evidence that the voters of Thurston County can’t trust the local bureaucracy with any of their tax dollars let alone another $250 million or more in taxes for this scheme.

While it is certainly embarrassing, Thurston County can fix the legal problems with this ordinance without too much pain.  They can rescind the existing ordinance.  They can properly redraft the ordinance fixing the typos, the fraud, and the unapproved changes made by staff.  The signature by the short term attorney who plans to profit from the passage of this tax would be legal next time.  It is also possible to properly notice the next meeting so the county doesn’t violate the Open Public Meetings Act once again. This is possible, even in Thurston County.

Another improperly noticed meeting was held last Friday off-site by Thurston County (Photo credit: Jon Pettit)

However, they would have to hold another public hearing, and many more people have become aware of this fiasco than were aware earlier this year.  Opposition to this tax scheme has only been growing, and no elected official likes to hear the public complain about this again (except for Commissioner Gary Edwards who voted against it last time and presumably would oppose it on the second round). 

This whole mess should serve as a reminder to taxpayers and citizen activists everywhere to pay closer attention to your local government.  Don’t assume they know what they are doing.  Thurston County frequently demonstrates that the bureaucracy is just as incompetent as ever and they get worse the more they assume people aren’t watching.  It takes time and dedication to ferret out the truth and uncover the incompetence (and corruption) which Jon Pettit has done in this case.  The local paper – The Olympian – no longer has the staff, budget, or interest to uncover the truth in cases like this.  It is outdated to believe the traditional media ever will do this type of investigative work in the future (assuming they still exist in the near future), but someone must do the heavy lifting.  It is a thankless task, but as long as citizens like Mr. Pettit are out there, the taxpayers have a chance to know the truth, even in Thurston County.

The plague of consequences from commissioners past continues to haunt Thurston County (previous Commissioners Wolfe, Romero, and Valenzuela)


Background articles and documents:

Thurston County Courthouse – a planned disaster

Massive Thurston County tax increase proposed for $300 million new courthouse scheme

Thurston County’s new courthouse tax – local citizen drafts more cost effective alternative

Thurston County Courthouse proposal – a bad idea (video)

Thurston County’s Expensive Courthouse tax (part2) (video)

Thurston County Board of County Commissioners Agenda – April 30, 2019

Letter from Citizen Jon Pettit to Thurston County Commissioners expressing concerns about legality of the Courthouse Tax Ordinance – September 16, 2019

Letter from Thurston County Manager Chavez to Citizen Jon Pettit saying that even if the signature is illegal, it doesn’t matter – Sept 4, 2019

Last minute contract with Nancy Neraas making her a “special deputy prosecuting attorney ” signed a week after she falsely represented herself as such on Thurston County Ordinance, note that Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Thunheim never dated his signature.

Nancy Neraas vendor contract (July 2018-2021) as bond counsel. Will profit from the Thurston County Courthouse tax (if it passes)

RCW 84.55.050 with highlights – mainly focused on showing how this law requires the amount to be taxed (the dollar rate) shall be specified in the final ordinance

Thurston County Courhouse tax ordinance – proposed version for April 23, 2019 hearing – note, on this one they specified the property tax amount of $1.69 (see page 3).

Thurston County Courthouse tax ordinance – Signed by two Commissioners (Menser and Hutchings) on April 30, 2019 – note serious changes made by staff after hearing without official approval by Commissioners.

WA Dept of Natural Resources – 1999 Geologic Map GM-47 – Geologic Folio of the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Urban Area, Washington: Liquefaction Susceptibility Map

What happens if the bond is approved, and a mini-recession hits? How Thurston County public services would be cut

PFM Financial Advisors – Mar 8, 2019 – report to Thurston County, WA – Potential Use of Levy Lid Lift – Update

Thurston County Commission Minutes – August 14, 2018 – see Item 5a and 5b for a $200,000 City of Olympia “Interlocal Agreement for new courthouse” and $300,000 for New Courthouse “Consultant”

Thurston County Commission Agenda – April 30, 2019 – see Item 6a for new tax proposal

Thurston County Elway Poll Survey (conducted March-April 2019) summary

Thurston County Elway Poll Survey supporting doc – crosstab banners

Thurston County Elway Poll Survey supporting doc – topline

Thurston County Courthouse Draft Feasibility Report – 12-14-18

SouthSoundBiz – “Thurston County to Place New Courthouse Request on April 2020 Ballot”

The Olympian – ” Vote to pay for Thurston County’s new courthouse not coming until April 2020″

The Olympian – “County commissioners vote 2-1 to move courthouse to downtown Olympia”

Thurston County demonstrates how NOT to build a jail

Thurston County spends $8 million and 18 years to make a $4 million empty building worth $2 million

Childish political leadership in Thurston County is costing taxpayers millions

Thurston County staff create fraudulent data to justify tax increase

Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore quits, will now plague the City of Yakima

A plague of Consequences

Jon Pettit – Plan A – proposed in July 2019 as better, more cost effective option

Document detailing Life Cycle Engineering and Budgeting for Public Facilities (Hint: Thurston County building maintenance doesn’t even come close to this)


  1. Pettit made excellent catches.

    These errors boggle me. Were they made accidentally (laziness, sloppiness, incompetence) or deliberately? Two commissioners are up for re-election next year, and illegal meetings are a good issue to hit them with.

    Whether the mistakes are accidental or deliberate, the effect is the same: they kill confidence in government.

    I expect Hutch to lose re-election, and won’t cry when he does. Gary, however, is a true public servant and very much worth keeping. To help that along, I hope Gary can find another vote on the Commission to replace Chavez. It’s not that Chavez make errors (everyone does), it’s that he lies so blatantly and badly.

Comments are closed.